Alex Moreland chats with composer Nathan Barr…
So, first of all, how did you first get involved with Flatliners?
The head of music at Sony, Spring Aspers, brought me in to submit a demo when they decided to replace their initial composer. They wanted to try a different musical direction. I submitted sort of a bunch of tracks from previous projects and they really liked the tracks and though I could bring something really cool to the film. So, nothing more exciting than that [laughs]
I suppose, how you describe the musical style of the movie?
I mean it’s sort of got electronic and synth underpinnings, which is a little unusual for me in that it has orchestral elements over the top of that. The intent of that, by the director Niels Arden Oplev, was to keep the, sort of, energy and sound of the score in a youthful place, since it is a PG-13 movie. And they’re going for a younger audience. They didn’t want it to feel too traditional orchestral throughout. They wouldn’t it to feel young and sort of energetic. So, the crucial elements with scores I always do is I try to work in some unusual instruments, though one of those instruments in this score is called an array – A-R-R-A-Y – nail organ. And it’s a series of different lengths of nails, pounded into the top of a hollow body, which is amplified. You put rubbers on your fingers and rub the heads of the nails and they produce, sort of, a whistle sound. And that’s an element that works throughout the score.
Picking up on what you were saying on keeping that youthful vibe, how do you try and reflect character and theme through the music?
This is an ensemble cast, and so one possible approach to any film where there’s an ensemble cast is, instead of having lots of individual themes for every character, as a composer you come up with a theme for the movie, a sort of overall ensemble. And that was very much the case here. There’s a main theme that plays in the more tender moments, and comes back throughout to mark the horrific moments, and so that seemed to be the best approach for this film. It’s a simple but recognisable melody that gets repurposed throughout the film at various moments to bring all these characters together in the journey. And then there’s the other thematic elements… there’s a bit of a romance, which gets its own theme obviously, although even that’s routed in the ensemble theme for the film.
So, when it comes to your approach, what’s your process like? I mean, do you like to work start to finish throughout the movie, sort of chronologically, or do you sort of build around the big moments of the movie?
Yeah, I think the best approach is not necessarily chronological, because the cue that…I’ve tried doing that in the past quite a bit, but I always run into a cue that I don’t know what to do with yet, but I come back to revisit it later. But yeah, I would say, I would sort of tackle the bigger scenes of the film first, and if I can nail that, then I know the filmmakers and I are gonna be able to work together and arrive to a musical place that we’re all really happy place. There are two sort of musical set pieces in this film, and Niels asked me to tackle those first. And so I did. And they were quite long cues, so once I had finished those I had quite a lot of musical material that I could translate into elements that would work throughout the film.
Is it quite a collaborative process then, with the director?
Yeah, it’s very much collaborative. And this film was tough because I had so little time to write the score. I basically had three and a half weeks to write an hour of music. And so, it was very collaborative in the sense that, because there was so little time for Niels to become familiar with what I was writing, it was important I write it, get it to him as quickly as possible, get notes from him as quickly as possible, and adjust accordingly.
How long is typical if that was a short space of time?
I mean typical, you would hope you’d have maybe six to eight weeks, maybe longer. Ideally. I mean, I’ve had too long – I’ve done a film where I’ve had a year [laughs] that has its own issues that come up. But, you know, three and a half weeks is very tight, but at the same time there’s something nice about really being under the gun and just writing, writing, writing, and not having any time to think. Leonard Bernstein was the one that said: “to produce something interesting, all you need is a plan and not quite enough time”.
Oh, I love that, that’s quite good.
Yeah. And so, that was certainly the case here. I mean, I knew what the score needed to do but I didn’t have enough time [laughs] But it worked out!
Now, I suppose, I know you’ve also worked quite extensively in television. I’m wondering how your approach differs in comparison between the two mediums.
I mean, it comes down to a couple things. One, if you’re doing a show that lasts 7 seasons and has 8 episodes, you can afford to be very sparse with your musical ideas and motifs in the first season and two, knowing that the littlest inkling of something might blow up into a giant theme of its own by the end of the series. In a film, it’s really important to know right out of the gate where you’re headed in the ninety to hundred-and-twenty minutes of that film. I might have something that’s a bitunderdeveloped in television, knowing I’ll have time to revisit it later and turn it into something really interesting as that character develops. Whereas in film, I’ve got to know right away where that thing is going. The schedules a lot too. There’s obviously a lot…there can be some big differences.
Do you have a preference in terms of how you work there? I mean the two styles, mediums?
No, I really enjoy both, I really, yeah…I really enjoy both. I think it’s just really about plugging into the materials and the characters of the story and in both cases…I think it’s fun to do with both. In Flatliners, there may or may not be another Flatliners, so I’ve just kinda said everything I will ever say as a composer throughout this musical universe of that film. And that’s kinda cool – You just do it and it’s done, it’s over. Whereas television is, like True Blood or something, eighty episodes, so there’s a real tyranny there for writing for eighty hours of storytelling.
Now, I suppose on sort of another note, I was wondering who would you say are you musical influences?
I think, just, lemme think about that…I don’t have specific other film composers per se, but I do have other scores I really enjoy here and there, that come up. I like people who have a unique voice and do something a little different. I think there are plenty of people out there who are very confident, very talented, but aren’t necessarily aiming to do something different, they’re just aiming to do, um, continue a tradition, and I think those kinds of composers are a little less interesting to me. I love composers that are really strong with theme and texture, so, um… I mean Dario Marianelli is a composer who’s a full composer whose work I really admire. Brilliant on many levels.
I suppose just to sort of pick up on what you were saying there – I’m not quite sure how to phrase what I’m getting at – but I suppose there’s a lot of advice for people starting out about trying to find a unique musical voice and writing voice generally, and I was wondering what your thoughts on that, on how to do that. Does that make sense?
Yeah, I think it does. And I think probably to some extent, to a large extent, anyone, no matter the artistic medium, starts out imitating someone they admire. And I think, for me, the most interesting and best result is when someone starts out to imitate someone else, and while they’re some sort of thread from that person, it’s immediately ones’ own somehow, at the same time. If that makes sense.
Yeah, I understand what you mean.
Yeah. So, certainly there are some composers, or some music that I really like, and I might try to recreate that to some extent in a film or show, and yet when it’s done, I’m probably the only one that hears where it came from.
How would you describe your voice?
Well, one part of my voice is, again, I have a very large collection of instruments, very unusual ones from all over the world.
Yeah, I was gonna ask about that.
Yeah. And so certainly that’s part of it. I realise, for me, sort of sitting down to the same 88 keys at my electronic keyboard and composing wasn’t going to be inspiring enough, no matter what sound I was pulling up on the sampler or synthesiser. So, for me, very much a part of the composing process is setting myself up to be able to make mistakes. So if I buy an instrument and I don’t really know how to play it, I will find myself approaching a melody mechanically, in the way I put down my fingers, that may yield something very different as I’m not familiar with the instrument. I find that a lot of us get boxed into motor mechanics – of how we play the piano, or the guitar – and an unfamiliar instrument really
I find that a lot of us get boxed into motor mechanics – of how we play the piano, or the guitar – and an unfamiliar instrument really breaks those motor impulses that we have, that always bring me back to the same place over and over again. So that’s one of the things, interesting textures. And I guess the way I approach an orchestra has its own sound, though I’m not sure I could define what that is. And then melody. I like to think that’s I’ve written some good melodies over the years and they have my own, unique sound to them. Although again, I’m not exactly sure what that is.
Fair enough. So, like you were saying that you’ve got your collection of unusual instruments, how did that start, that collection?
It started because I grew up in a house where there were a couple of odd instruments – well, at least odd to Western ears. So, in my house we had a koto from Japan, we had a blue back mandolin, my dad had a shakuhachi, a banjo, guitar, and there was a harpsicord. So, I don’t know, right away the whole idea that music could be made on all these instruments was just really empowering and intriguing for me. And so, when I left home and started to work as composer, I just continued to collect, because I was very inspired by that.
And have you got any particular, stand-out pieces?
Yeah, so the one that I have, that I’m most excited about, that I’m actually building an entire building for –
– is a Wurlitzer Theater Organ … if you know what that is?
So it’s a Wurlitzer Theater Organ that was built in 1928 for Fox studios here in Los Angeles. It’s about one thousand-five hundred pipes, organ pipes, it’s a pipe organ. It occupies five rooms, so that’s gonna become a very central part of my studio that I’m building. I’m working with a director named Eli Roth next year on our fourth or fifth collaboration together, and I’m gonna be using that in the score, that organ. So that’ll be very exciting.
Yeah, I mean that sounds amazing.
Yeah, yeah, it’s gonna be pretty incredible. It literally requires an entire wing of a building [laughs] And it’s not a church organ, it’s a theatre organ, so it’s got a different sound. It’s a got a lot of instruments that don’t have to do with pipes. It’s like a…it actually has a piano. Like an upright piano. You’re sitting at the organ, you pull down the tab that says piano, and you’re now playing the piano from the organ, mechanically.
How did this collection start? How did you first get into it?
Um, I thought I had sort of a vision of creating this ‘Willy Wonka’ space for music for many years, and when I started actually exploring the building of this place six years ago, I started thinking about ‘how can I make this space really usable, and not just another recording studio?’ So I got to know some people in the pipe organ world and they said ‘you should talk to this guy in Rino, he has some really interesting instruments and he’s one of the top pipe organ restoration guys in the world. And so I did speak to him and he says I have an instrument that he’d be very interested in! It was the organ used in The Sound of Music, Bernard Herrmann used it in The Day the Earth Stood Still… It’s got a really rich history in film music, so on every level, it’s sort of the epitome of why I love collecting instruments.
Yeah, that does sound really, really cool. Definitely the ‘Willy Wonka’ of music.
Yeah, yeah, exactly! I already have a lot of instruments that even people who know instruments come in and go ‘What is that?!’ And so I’m gonna move all of these instruments in my current studio at home into this space, so it’s gonna become this really unique and interesting space to make music, to learn about these instruments, um, yeah, I’m just really, really excited about it.
Now, on another note, I was wondering, how did you first become a composer?
So I moved to Los Angeles in 1996, and in 1997, just out of nowhere really, got a job as an assistant to Hans Zimmer. I worked for him for 8 months, got a real crash course in film scoring, and I was also interested in film music, so it was just a really great match. And then I left him, and started working on my own. And eventually cobbled together something that resembled a career.
Well, great! As a final question, what would you most like someone to take away from your work?
I guess I’d go back to that same thing of just sort of, um, I’d like someone to be moved by what they hear, and also wonder what they heard, you know, probably hearing instruments they’ve never heard before. So I guess, you know, a sense of being moved and sense of wonder – if that’s not too grandiose. Something like that would be nice.
Nathan Barr, thank you very much!